Walking The Talk of “Safe Schools”

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[Shannon Cuttle is an educator, school administrator, safe schools advocate and trainer, community organizer, and policy wonk.]

On October 26, 2010, the Department of Education released a letter sent to schools, colleges, and universities stressing the importance of creating welcoming places for all students and a reminding them that public funding could be in jeopardy to those schools and institutions that do not comply as outlined in Title IX.

Title IX, part of the 1972 Education Amendment, states that no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

The letter from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) was meant to be a general guidance statement with hypothetical examples of situations of bullying and harassment it was not a change in law for schools, colleges, and universities that receive public education fund under Title IX. The Department of Education and its OCR have not made changes to Title IX and the timely-dated letter reminded school leaders that Title IX does not cover discrimination in the basis of sexual orientation. The letter may imply the crossing over of sexual orientation and sexual harassment together, but without actual protections and clearly stated laws that explicitly cover gender identity and sexual orientation, not all students and educators are protected.

This is not the first time the Department of Education has made an announcement on Title IX, but it is the first time that the department has mentioned Title IX in a letter to schools, colleges, and universities speaking of bullying and harassment. Nothing new was learned from the release of the letter that school officials and leaders were not already aware of.

On January 22, 2009 the Supreme Court of the United States overturned a lower court ruling in the case of Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee , in which the parents of a kindergartner from Hayannis, MA, challenged the the Title IX law after a third grader bullied their child at school over a span of six months. After that ruling, the Department of Education issued a statement saying they were going to review Title IX and letters were sent to notify institutions nationwide.

In April, 2010, Vice President Joe Biden issued a “Dear Colleague” letter which withdrew a 2005 interpretation of the Title IX policy that issued compliance standards around the country and put Title IX in a state of assessment and research with surveys, where it still stands today.

But, do a stern letter and a survey alone do much without actual changes in how we create safe schools in our own communities? And what do we do when sometimes the biggest bullies may be in positions that control how we keep schools safe for all students and families?

Local school districts nationwide, along with colleges and universities, have made statements that they will comply with the letter that was sent out by (OCR) while others such as Godfrey-Lee Superintendent in Michigan have complained.

Recently in Arkansas, school board member Clint McCance made comments on his Facebook page stating:

Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves… I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin.

In Utah, two school board members running for office on the Washington County District School Board have said they want to “eliminate or deteriorate the (GSA) clubs” in the local High School.

In Chicago, police officer Michael Carrol (who is running for Alderman in the 46th Ward) set up a committee to tackle safe schools from drugs and gangs. When asked about anti-bullying and harassment protections including LGBT youth, his reply was, “There are no problems with LGBT kids being bullied in my neighborhood. We dont have any I know of”.

In California, gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has said that she does not condone violence by any means but would not support schools to enforce policies that would lead to what she referred to as “special protections.”

And in races across the country, many running for office from all sides of the political spectrum are using the vague phrase “safe schools,” trying to sway voters on the left and right. Anti-bullying and safe schools have become hot topics of conversation in the news and on the campaign trails. But, if we really are going to create inclusive safe schools we need action and not lip service.

So, we must start from the ground up and demand more accountability from our school leaders, school boards and our local, state and federal leaders.We must be engaged and informed with what is happening in our local schools and communities. That is why it is so important for you to get informed and vote today! Youth that do not have a voice need you to be theirs at the polls to help create inclusive safe schools.

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